Isn't this sentence grammatically incorrect? What is it's construction?

I have been thinking about this for a while. I know it basically means "What is this thing?" or maybe "What is this thing here?" but I can't seem to figure out the structure of the sentence. I've tried to convert it to English to break it down because I'm only A1 in French. This is what I've got so far.

Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette chose-là?
What is it that it is that this thing here?

As far as I know, asking a question by inverting "it is" to "is it" and then repeating "it is" is just for emphasis and has no effect on the structure. Therefore I simplified the sentence like this.

Qu'est-ce que c'est que -> Qu'est-ce que
What is it that it is that -> What is it that

This is where I get stumped. AFAIK, in English, any sentence that starts with "What is it that..." must than be followed by a subject+verb combination or variant. For example, "What is it that I do?" or "What is it that this thing is". There needs to be a verb. The issue is that AFAIK "là" is an preposition, making the structure of the sentence "Qu'est-ce que object+prep" Qu'est-ce que cette chose-là, which seemingly translates to "What's it that this thing here?" doesn't seem to be grammatically correct.

I don't understand this. To me, it sounds like the syntactic equivalent of asking "What's it that he here?" (which makes no sense). Can someone please explain what I'm missing here?

Surely you would need to say "Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette chose-là est?" to make it grammatically correct, no?

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    You're not missing anything. It's the kind of structure that can hardly be explained with verbatim translation, I'm afraid you have to learn such things as is.
    – vc 74
    May 13, 2021 at 19:45
  • Does this answers your question? In any case, Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette chose-là est? is ungrammatical like would be "What is that thing is?"
    – jlliagre
    May 13, 2021 at 19:49
  • @jlliagre No. Qu'est-ce que c'est que c'est que cette chose-la would quite literally be "what's it that it's that that thing is" or "what's it that that thing is". I do understand that the French would never say it, but I fail to see how it would be ungrammatical. May 16, 2021 at 2:59

1 Answer 1


There is no point trying to translate literally this sentence in English, outside to make fun of the result. Qu'est ce que c'est (que) is a set expression that can't easily be reduced to independent words and is essentially equivalent to either the formal and mostly obsolete qu'est... or the usual and informal c'est quoi....

Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette chose ?

Qu'est cette chose ?

C'est quoi cette chose ?

Consequently, adding an extra conjugated verb makes the sentence ungrammatical because there would be two verbs competing for a single subject.

C'est quoi cette chose est ? (What is that thing is?)

Note that single word transcriptions of these expressions start to be found in forums, blogs and similar non academic writings exhibiting the fact they are considered to be single units, e.g.:

Qu'est-ce que c'est ?Kesseucé ?

Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça ?Kèsèksa ? or Kèséksa ?

  • I'm having trouble getting this. I keep hearing that Qu'est-ce que translates to "what is". Qu'est-ce que tu veux faire, for example, is what do you want to do. It literally translates to what is it that you want to do. There is nothing wrong with this literal translation and I don't get why I keep hearing that you can't literally translate the phrase. If I can say 'Qu'est-ce que c'est' (what is it that it is) and 'Qu'est-ce que tu fais' (what is it that you do) than surely I can generalize to 'what is it that subjec + verb' as in Qu'est-ce que cette chose est May 16, 2021 at 14:27
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    Do you agree about C'est quoi cette chose est (lit. "It is what that thing is?") not being grammatical?
    – jlliagre
    May 16, 2021 at 14:34
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    @KNOBPersonal "Qu'est-ce que" used to be a clause and that's the state of affairs the orthography preserves. The issue with analyzing it that way in modern French is that the registers where pronominal inversion (as in est-ce) have been completely eliminated are also those that have completely replaced "qu'est-ce" by "qu'est-ce que c'est". If you don't analyse "qu'est-ce que" as a solid, non-compositional unit, you'll have to explain why inversion is possible only in this context and not any other and why, if "qu'est-ce que c'est que tu as fait ?" is an emphatic construction, (cont.) May 16, 2021 at 14:52
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    ...its non-emphatic counterpart *"que tu as fait ?" never appears in those registers and in fact is wholly ungrammatical. Instead, a doubly emphatic construction "qu'est-ce que c'est que tu as fait ?" is used. It's much simpler to assume that "qu'est-ce que" simply means "what" and "qu'est-ce que c'est que" is the emphatic "what is it that". Finally, your assumption also requires explaining why some interrogative words+est-ce que combinations can reduce in a way interrogative words + verb + pronoun combos can't: qu'est-ce que tu > kɛsty, où est-ce que > uskə, etc. May 16, 2021 at 14:52
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    @XouDo Mais qu’est cette société qui ne sait pas donner sa place à un poète ? Surtout ici, en France, le pays de la littérature ! Alexandra Oury, 2020
    – jlliagre
    May 17, 2021 at 8:57

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